Kanamori Mitzo of Hakui, a village in Ishikawa Prefecture on Japan’s central-west coast, was tending to his seaweed harvest on a night in February when he suddenly saw a dark object floating on the waves. He cautiously approached, having quickly guessed that it was the remnants of yet another fishing vessel from North Korea, a “ghost ship.” As the object came into full view, he could make out the shape of a wooden boat, overturned but intact, perched on a rock. As he glanced over the fading Korean letters painted on the wooden panels, he thought, “How could a boat like this possibly be out to sea?”
Mr. Kanamori met with Daily NK on May 12 to discuss the three abandoned North Korean fishing boats that had recently washed ashore along the Japanese coast. The three boats were found abandoned off the coast of Saiaki in February and March. This area marks Japan’s furthest western point and the Korean peninsula’s furthest point east, and where the distance between the two is shortest.
Banai Yoshiaka, a journalist for the Hokkoku Shimbun, has been reporting on the North Korean “ghost ship” issue in Ishikawa Prefecture since last fall. He met Mr. Kanamori, and together they helped guide Daily NK on this story. As we approached the area, Mr. Kanamori’s eyes widened as he pointed to the location of the shipwrecks and said, “Some of the planks have been swept away, but the boat is in relatively good condition.” He later added that it was the first time he had seen three shipwrecked boats together.
“North Korean boats are usually swept away in the East Sea of Sea of Japan after the fall, but from last year the number has increased dramatically,” he said, further explaining that most North Korean boats tended to wash up on the coast of Ishikawa Prefecture due to the strong winds and current. However, from the beginning of last year, they began appearing in the northern regions of Yamagata, and even as far away as Hokkaido. Some of the North Korean fishermen are fortunate enough to make it to the Japanese shore alive, but many do not.
With that information in hand, the Daily NK team then went to the site of the shipwrecks. An area past a white lighthouse and through thick grass opened up to a rocky coast. After walking for about 10 minutes along the beach, a small boat, approximately three meters long and one meter wide came into view. It had fading red letters written on a white background. Its wooden planks had been torn and scattered, making for a pitiful sight with its rusted nails sticking out of the sides. The size and worn state of the boat was immediately striking.
The second vessel lay about 50 meters away. Caught on the rocks, shards of plank were tangled with litter from the beach. Our reporter companion took in the mangled sight in silence.
Mr. Kanamori, himself having spent 20 years as a sailor, wondered aloud how a ship like this could have ever been considered seaworthy. “Impossible.” he said, shaking his head. He then explained that the flat underside of the boat meant that it was suitable for rivers or lakes, not bodies of water with waves, which could easily splash into the boat and overturn it. “Taking a boat like this to sea is a death wish,” he added solemnly.
The third boat lay about 100 meters from the second. Of the three boats discovered around that time, the third was the largest. There was a red ice box installed on the boat, indicating that it was likely used to store squid. It was about 15 meters long and three meters wide and lay overturned, resting on a large rock. We were fortunate enough to be able to see the deck, which was littered with trash and other objects from the ocean.
Compared to the other boats, the writing on the third was clearer, and as we looked closer, several loose screws could be seen. However, Mr. Kanamori explained that the type of screw used was far too weak for the size of the boat. They were low-quality plastic screws that could easily fall out and break, “like toys,” he added.
According to the Japanese Coast Guard, 104 North Korean vessels washed up on the west coast of Japan in 2017. The numbers have been climbing over the past three years (2014: 65, 2015: 45, 2016: 66). By May 2018, there had already been 42 such incidents. If the current trend continues, this year will be the most dangerous yet for North Korean fishermen in the West Sea. The Japanese Coast Guard’s Public Relations Department has been trying to raise awareness about the increasing illegal incursions of North Korean fishermen. Japanese fishermen have been appealing to the government to pass policies to address the practice.
In the Ishikawa Prefecture village of Noto, we met with Yamashiro Yoshihiro (70), who has been a fisherman for 50 years. He noted that fishing boats from North Korea began appearing in the area, rising in number from about four years ago. In particular, North Korean boats tend to fish for squid. Yamagoshi Doshikatz (71), with 55 years of fishing experience, has been leading crews of 9-10 sailors each year on 30-ton squid fishing boats. He claimed that he has seen “400-500” small North Korean boats grouped together on fishing trips out at sea.
At the offices of the Ogijiso Fishermen Union, fishermen from the area gathered to discuss their encounters with North Korean fishing boats. They described in detail the boats they saw and the crews working on them. As they answered our questions, the Japanese fishermen could not help but feel sympathy towards their North Korean counterparts. Although North Korean fishermen illegally fishing in Japanese territorial waters means less squid for the Japanese fishermen, the condition of their boats and lack of safety equipment leaves them vulnerable to the dangers of the sea.
Mr. Yamashiro informed us that the North Korean boats usually have 7-8 crewmen working. But the vessels are too small and not designed for that number of people. “Every time they go out to sea, they are risking their lives. They have a better chance of surviving on the battlefield than out at sea.”
“A proper squid boat weighs about 30 tons, so it can go further out to sea. Trying to catch squid in a small boat is suicide,” Mr. Yamagoshi added.
Mr. Yamashiro showed us his own squid boat to compare with the North Korean vessels washed ashore. Floating on the docks immediately in front of the Fishermen’s Union building, we could see that it was at least 10 times larger than the North Korean boats we had seen earlier. Climbing up the ladder to get a sense of the ship, from the helm to the galley to the quarters to the studio, everything was sturdy and according to Mr. Yamashiro, could last for a month or more at sea. This drove home the feelings of the Japanese fishermen. One did not need experience at sea to get the sense that attempting the same task with a small boat would be impossible.
After covering various stories in relation to North Korean ghost ships across the region and speaking with many experienced seahands, Mr. Banai stated, “The sailors are the experts and all of them tell me that taking these small boats from North Korea all the way to Yamatotai is an impossible distance.”
Along with three reporter colleagues, they have penned nearly forty articles on the subject over the past few months. As the number of fishing boats from North Korea washing up on the shore increases, so does the damage to the Japanese coast, he laments. The costs are borne by everyone.
This article was brought to you with support from the Korea Press Foundation.
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*Translated by Nate Kerkhoff